Revolutionary Measures

Fake news – are we on the road to 1984?

For a term that most people hadn’t heard of 18 months ago, fake news is now mainstream. A simple Google search on the term turns up 145,000,000 results, 28,900,000 in the news section. Originally coined to cover clickbait stories written with the intent to mislead for political or financial gain, it has now been hijacked by the likes of Donald Trump, one of its key beneficiaries, to describe any story that he disagrees with.

Donald Trump

Misleading the public has always been a tactic used by leaders, with propaganda used to push a particular point of view, especially in times of war. Additionally, many newspapers have run sensational stories to attract readers – witness the New York Sun publishing stories about life on the moon in 1835.

George Orwell’s 1984 shows how the combination of propaganda and mass-media communications can be used to control the population and condition what they actually think and believe. And for those that dismiss that as a fantasy, I’d say that fake news in the digital age actually goes even further, for three reasons:

1. We live in an ungated world
In the past people got their news from a limited range of sources such as newspapers, TV and radio. All of these employed professional journalists to sift and check facts before they reached their audiences. This meant that while they may have been biased to left or right, or even stretch the truth, they had to meet journalistic standards. Now, in the digital world anyone can be a publisher, without needing any training – opinions and stories go direct to the public, particularly through social media, without any guarantee of quality. At the same time trust in traditional institutions (politicians, journalists and companies) has broken down, meaning people are actively looking at other sources for their information.

2. We live in a polarised world
Social media encourages people to cluster with those of similar beliefs, limiting our world view and therefore reinforcing it. During the European Referendum, for example, liberal Remainers just saw tweets supporting their stance on Twitter, leading to a sense of real shock when the result went the other way. When we’re in our bubbles on social media we’re more likely to click on, forward or believe in fake news if it plays to our particular beliefs – especially if it appears to be endorsed by someone we trust.

3. We live in a world with short attention spans
How many times have you seen a headline, read it but not bothered to click through for the full story? In my case pretty often. There simply doesn’t seem time to read news stories in-depth or in-detail. At the same time attention spans are shortening and people quickly move onto the next thing, meaning it is easy to confuse fake and real news.

So what can be done to fight fake news? It is easy to blame Facebook and its algorithms, shadowy websites that make money through adverts that run alongside fake stories or even politicians such as Donald Trump who know exactly the lies that they are peddling. However, I think responsibility goes further than this:

  • PR people and the companies they represent have to think through the stories that they issue – putting a positive spin on something is one thing, but be sure that you’re not crossing the line into untruths.
  • Politicians need to be more careful in what they say – perhaps backed up by an independent regulator that immediately investigates and pronounces on dubious statistics, such as the alleged £350m per week paid to the EU that was splashed on Vote Leave buses during the referendum.
  • As consumers we need to learn that not everything you read online is true, and that we are not in a cosy world where every story is meticulously fact-checked. We need to look for sources, think before we share and broaden our world views to try and understand the wider context of the new reality.

Otherwise the fake news we’ve seen already will just be the start, and we’ll be moving swiftly down the road to a version of 1984 that sees propaganda winning and trust between groups and communities completely disappearing. And that is in no-one’s long term interest – not even Donald Trump’s.

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June 7, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Lies, PR and the EU Referendum

As I write this, Thursday’s EU Referendum looks too close to call, although polls seem to indicate that the Remain camp is moving back on top. I don’t want to use this blog to discuss politics, particularly having seen the mindless abuse that the Leave camp has subjected Remain supporters to – see the comments on Rio Ferdinand’s thoughtful and well-argued Facebook post as an example.grunge-european-union-flag

Instead I want to look at the public relations and communications strategies around the campaign, and what it means for PR professionals, and more importantly for political dialogue in this country going forward. I have five conclusions:

1. Lies are going unchallenged
While both sides have come out with some pretty unbelievable statements during the campaign – voting to Remain will prevent World War 3, for example, the Leave campaign seems to be basing its central positions on the complete untruth that the UK sends £350m to Brussels every week. This ignores the rebate that is applied BEFORE any money changes hands, and also ignores all the other grants and support, such as to agriculture that the UK benefits from. Despite being proved to be a palpable lie by experts such as the independent UK Statistics Authority, it is still being peddled by the Leave campaign. It seems that interviewers have given up challenging Leave spokespeople on this, and newer misinformation such as the alleged imminent arrival of hordes of Turkish migrants following their country’s accession to the EU – an event that is highly unlikely to ever happen.

2. Experts are bad
Linked to this communication strategy is painting any expert that disagrees with Leave as not worth listening to. The IMF, Barack Obama, other European leaders, business leaders, David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, Nobel prize-winning economists – they are all part of a conspiracy against the general public. Indeed, Michael Gove himself said “The UK has had enough of experts” – presumably why he is at the head of the Leave campaign.

On a more serious note this distrust of knowledge is mirrored in Donald Trump’s appeal in the US – and shows that the traditional dislike of politicians has spread to anyone in authority or positions of influence. This is deeply disturbing as it removes one of the major planks of an advanced democracy – people spend years studying a subject, become an expert and then use their knowledge for the greater good. Why bother when a man with bad hair can solve the world’s problems by shouting and building a wall?

3. The devil has the best tunes
Incumbents always have a hard job. People may be innately conservative (with a small c), but they have a record that they can be judged on. By contrast the Leave campaign is freely promising the earth, spending the mythical £350m on a whole raft of schemes, from the NHS to farmers, despite having neither power nor accountability. As anyone that has repitched for a piece of business knows, it is easy for rivals to upstage you by gulling clients with ideas that you know are impossible to implement. This makes the Remain campaign’s job harder, particularly as their opponents’ rhetoric gets more and more fanciful.

4. Language and tone
In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell wrote “Never use a long word when a short one will do.” He saw keeping language simple as a way to communicate with the wider public, and get across complex theories in ways that were understandable to all. What he didn’t foresee was for the same tactics to be used to actively bamboozle the populace with glib statements that cannot be put into action. Again, this is very similar to the rhetoric employed by Trump in the US election. Looking at the campaign names Leave is much more active and punchy than Remain – it sounds more exciting, masking the real message in a dangerous way.

5. Ambivalence
When he promised a referendum David Cameron said that he’d only argue for Remain if he received concessions from the EU in certain areas. While he did negotiate improvements, this illustrates his half-hearted approach to the whole issue. He has dramatically underestimated his opponents, appeared ambivalent until campaigning began and struggled to match the passion of the Leavers, who have been working up to this point for over 10 years. Cameron seems to have failed to have learnt the lessons of the Scottish Referendum which showed how difficult it is for the status quo to be positioned as a positive choice. Ultimately, he may well pay for this lack of passion with his job – whichever way the vote goes.

The EU Referendum is a once in a generation event, therefore it is right that arguments are made with passion – the vote really does matter. However what campaigning shows is that there is a deep fissure developing between the electorate and those they elect, with trust breaking down and people turning away from the facts, and embracing hearsay and lies. The ironic thing is that the people the Leavers are led by (Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage), are as much a part of the establishment as their Remain opponents – they are simply happy to embrace the disaffected and turn their grievances against their political rivals. The rules of political communication have been not just ignored, but completely ripped up, meaning that whatever the result it will leave a fractious, divided and ultimately poorer political landscape across the UK.

June 22, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Big Brother is manipulating you?

As anyone that has read George Orwell’s 1984 knows, the ability to rewrite history and manipulate information is at the heart of controlling behaviour. As communist Russia showed, people could simply be airbrushed from the official account and would vanish from the public consciousness. 1984

Of course, in the age of social media, the web, and 24 hour global media, this ability to control news should have disappeared. If a government blocks a site or a mobile phone network, there are ways around it that spread information quickly, bypassing attempted censorship.

However, I’d argue that the reverse has happened and that Big Brother can operate stealthily in two ways. Firstly, rumours can start and spread unchecked, with the majority of us not taking the time to get to the original source, instead believing something that has been retweeted or shared on Facebook. I’ve had people swear blind to me that a major incident took place ‘because I saw it on Facebook’ – though I can’t believe they’d be as credulous if a random stranger told them the same story down the pub. By the time the truth is out, immeasurable damage can be done – to a company’s brand or share price or a person’s reputation.

Secondly, we believe what our computers tell us, and act accordingly, particularly when it chimes with our own preconceptions. Essentially we think that the complex algorithms that control what appears on our screens are unbiased, rather than reflecting what the site owner has determined in some way.

This leaves us open to manipulation, whether by marketers trying to sell us things or more sinister experiments. Facebook received justified criticism for running an experiment where it tampered with the stories in people’s timelines, seeing what the impact would be on what users themselves wrote. Unsurprisingly the percentage of negative or positive posts had a direct link to the tone and language people used in their own posts.

Now dating site OKCupid has admitted that it experimented on its users. This included deliberately pairing up unsuitable couples and telling them that they were a perfect match to see what would happen. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little serendipity, but deliberate meddling risks breaking the trust between a site and its users. Throwing in a wildcard of “here’s someone completely unlike you, but why not see what happens if you meet?” is one thing if it is advertised, but quite another if it is hidden behind the veil of computer processing.

Some might argue that this is just a next step in techniques such as Nudge, where choices are ordered in a way to drive particular outcomes. These are supposedly for the greater good. For example, if diners come to the salad bar first in a cafeteria they eat more healthy stuff and if you automatically enrol people in pensions, they tend not to take the opportunity to opt out. But I’d say it goes much further than this, and is about trust.

In many ways breaches of trust are similar to security breaches – something that the user relied upon unthinkingly has been removed, calling into question the entire relationship they have with a company. And like trust in any relationship, it is a time-consuming and difficult process to rebuild it.

So, anyone involved in marketing, media or technology does have a responsibility to be as open and transparent as they can be. At the very least there are legal safeguards (such as the Data Protection Act) that need to be obeyed, but I think companies need to go further than that. We live in a world where people want to have a genuine relationship with brands that they respect and trust, rather than the transactional, one-sided versions of the past. Therefore organisations need to think first about the consequences of experimenting on their users before playing Big Brother with their lives.

July 30, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment